Archive for 2020

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20

Color Out of Space

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction with tags on March 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

color_out_of_space_ver2STARS2.5When Nicolas Cage goes “Full Cage” it gives me comfort in times like these.  All U.S. theaters have been ordered to close for an indefinite period in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Hollywood production (as is much of the rest of the world) is currently halted to slow the spread of the virus.  There won’t be any new movies playing in cinemas for a while.  This is unchartered territory.  How long this can last is anyone’s guess.  Yet I will persist.  This won’t deter me from writing.  As long as DVD & streaming still exists, I will review new releases on that platform.  Color Out of Space opened to a mere 81 theaters back on January 24, 2020, in the U.S.  Needless to say few people (including me) had the ability to see it — even if they wanted to.  It was subsequently released to VOD, Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on February 25th.

I was primed to enjoy this production.  Color Out of Space is science fiction fueled horror from Richard Stanley, the director infamously fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).  That might be a cause for concern.  On the plus side, this was produced by the same people who brought us the bizarre 2018 action horror film, MandyMandy was directed by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)).  Now I’m not saying Mandy was great art, mind you, but it presented a bizarro appeal that I found amusing.  It’s was unique and that’s saying something in an age of reboots and sequels.  That cast featured Nicolas Cage in a wild acting display that added to its eccentricities.  He’s starring in this too and I can say his presence definitely adds to the strangeness.  The actor has been cultivating an offbeat persona ever since he starred in Valley Girl way back in 1983.  Anyone familiar with the actor’s work knows he chooses projects where he can bring an air of eccentricity.  This feature is no different in that respect and I can appreciate that.  In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two films.  Nevertheless, where the quirks seemed to make sense in the former, it doesn’t serve much purpose here.

From a narrative standpoint, Color Out of Space is a fairly simple tale based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft.  If you’re acquainted with that author, you know he can be a bit odd.  The text is significantly more scientifically detailed than what we observe onscreen.  The adaptation doesn’t have that much of a plot.  A meteorite plummets to Earth in a dazzling blaze of purple-pink hues and lands in their yard on a remote New England property.  Things get decidedly weirder from there.  Actually, I’m making the adventure seems like more than it is.  Meteor lands.  Mayhem ensues.  That’s it.  But there are some captivating special effects and an interesting visual style.  At one point, a large multi-eyed creature that resembles a praying mantis crawls out of the well. It’s a creepy moment.

Nicolas Cage gives another gonzo performance.  It takes a certain suspension of disbelief.  He plays a father married to his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) with three kids Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard).  They’re all living on a rural farm.  They also care for a herd of animals which allows Cage to say, and I quote “Now if you don’t mind, it’s time we milk the alpacas!”  The actor gets a lot of campy lines.  Another “delightful” exchange with his beloved daughter has him screaming at her to “Get the f— out of my sight, okay?”  Then he reconsiders and says “No, actually, I’ll save you the trouble and get the f— out of yours!”  He constantly reprimands his wife and kids with an exasperation that borders on comic relief.

This is not for people who idolize the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  It’s more like a springboard to create random vignettes.  Nonetheless, audiences who revel in Nicolas Cage doing his uniquely deranged schtick will find much to savor here.  The silliness doesn’t stop with the dialogue.  Another episode features mom making dinner.  While cutting carrots, she chops her own fingers instead of the vegetables.  I can’t even do the scene justice but everything is done for comedic effect.  The story is one big joke.  I admire this film for its silly sensibility and creative aesthetic.  However, those looking for a coherent account will find it lacking.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Tommy Chong pops up as an eccentric squatter who lives on the fringes of the family’s homestead.  He’s the cherry on top of a very messy sundae.

The Invisible Man

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on March 16, 2020 by Mark Hobin

invisible_manSTARS4I’ve seen a lot of good movies over the past year, but it’s been a while since an opening scene grabbed me as quickly as this one.  It’s so perfectly crafted.  A woman (Elisabeth Moss) wakes up in the middle of the night.  Cecilia is lying in bed.  There is a man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeping beside her.  His arm draped around her waist. A look of fear appears as she gently extricates herself from his grasp.  A nearby bottle of Diazepam suggests he has been drugged.  Quietly and methodically she retrieves her belongings, turns off the alarms and positions one camera to face Adrian, the sleeping man, so she can monitor him from her phone.  She attempts to leave.  However, at the last minute, his dog accidentally sets off a car alarm.  Cecilia is forced to make a run for it into the street where her sister (Harriet Dyer) is already waiting in a car.  No sooner has she entered the vehicle when Adrian comes out, smashing the window before Emily drives her away to safety.

I’m a big proponent of less is more.  Those early minutes are the very definition of that phrase. Despite the fact that no words are spoken, the introduction is a perfect tease to whet your appetite for more.  Sure you will have questions, but the answers are skillfully revealed over time in a way that supports the artistry of this narrative.  It may not rival Hitchcock, but someone has clearly studied his methods.  The Invisible Man was written and directed by Leigh Whannell – perhaps best known for writing movies directed by James Wan (Saw, Insidious).  Whannell may have made an unfortunate directorial debut in 2015 with Insidious: Chapter 3.  I won’t mince words.  It was an execrable work.  However, this feature is a solid example of his skills as a director.

The Invisible Man is such a fascinating endeavor.  That effectiveness is due in no small part to the performance of Elizabeth Moss.  The actress rarely does commercial releases like this.  She generally favors indie fare, although Us was a rare exception.  This is actually Moss’s first true lead role in a studio production and if it’s any indication of her abilities, there should be more.  We slowly come to learn the man she escaping from is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a powerful tech entrepreneur who also happens to be an abusive boyfriend.  No injury is depicted.  However, her behavior tells you everything you need to know.  The intro is rather sophisticated.  However, the rest of the account amps up the violence.  People are dragged, hit and thrown by an unseen force.  It’s pretty well done so I found that action to be captivating.  However, on two occasions a person’s throat is graphically sliced open and those demonstrations are decidedly less understated.

The Invisible Man is a remake of the classic 1933 Universal monster movie (which was based on H.G. Wells’ 123-year-old sci-fi novel.  This saga bears little resemblance to the original source.  They’ve basically extrapolated Wells’ seed of an idea to create a completely different film for a contemporary audience.  The feature was originally going to star Johnny Depp and be a part of Universal’s Dark Universe.  Then the reboot of The Mummy franchise starring Tom Cruise flopped.  It deserved to — it was simply awful.  So when the idea of continuing the “Dark Universe” was canceled, we narrowly avoided a potential catastrophe.  Given how great this smaller-scale version turned out, it now seems like a blessing in disguise.  The Invisible Man is so much better than I could have imagined.  A low-budget Blumhouse production may have more modest ambitions.  However, it still manages to highlight the creativity and character development that makes a story compelling.  These characteristics elevate this horror flick which remains one of the very best films in the first quarter of 2020.

03-10-20

Onward

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

onward_ver11STARS3.5When I hear the name Pixar I think of some of the best animated films ever made.  Few will deny the entertainment value of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out for example.  So the announcement of a new release from that subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios will always be something that I greet with joyous anticipation.  I’ll admit they’re not all classics.  The Cars trilogy, Monsters University, and Brave would land near the bottom in my estimation.  Nevertheless, I have never given a Pixar movie a negative review.  That hasn’t changed with this effort.

Onward is about two brothers who happen to be elves.  They’re the Lightfoot brothers.  Younger teenaged Ian is a dead ringer for Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille.  Remember how Disney recycled the character design of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book (1967) for Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) or how about Penny in The Rescuers (1977) from Mowgli in The Jungle Book?   I’m ok with it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Ian is articulated by Tom Holland who is fresh from another voice starring appearance in the feature-length cartoon Spies in Disguise from Blue Sky Studios.  Barley (Chris Pratt) is Ian’s stocky older teenaged brother who acts as a mentor.  He’s also partial to fantasy role-playing games.  Together they set out on an epic quest to find a jewel that will allow them to see their long-deceased father.

Ok, so I was worried. Onward didn’t grab me right away.  For the first 20-30 minutes or so I wasn’t feeling this movie.  It simply felt like a present-day sitcom superficially dressed up with fantastical elements.  The individuals may look like magical figures but they act like contemporary people.  There’s a centaur, a cyclops, pixies, elves, and other assorted creatures.  The animation is bright and colorful but it’s hard not to feel like the fanciful critters are frivolously employed to obscure a very pedestrian plot.  Then they go on a road trip and they meet a manticore who owns a restaurant and she’s vocalized by Octavia Spencer.  There’s a joy to the animation and the voice acting with her character that kind of jump-starts this drama.  From then on it gets better.  There a lot of jokes obtained from this fictional world.  Let me tell you, there’s is a depth to the creativity of this world-building that definitely raises the bar.

Pixar is famous for being able to extract emotion. Onward didn’t make me cry.  Although it certainly tries.  Most of the adventure is fine but it’s in the resolution where I was converted into a fan.  During the climax, the chronicle smartly recalls previous events that occurred throughout the saga.  Those episodes didn’t seem so important at the time but the story connects the dots and recontextualizes them.  This touching through-line elevates the denouement into an emotionally resonant finale.   It’s a savvy manipulation.  Director Dan Scanlon – who also helmed Monsters University – wrote the film with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.  They essentially redeem the entire narrative within the final 15 minutes.  It reconsiders everything that we have seen before.  Onward isn’t anywhere near as affecting or innovative as the studio’s best work but it is pleasant enough.  It just goes to prove that even a minor Pixar release is still pretty enjoyable.

Emma.

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

emma_ver2STARS3.5“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.” — Jane Austen

Emma is like a piece of candy wrapped in colorful cellophane placed in a silver box covered in shiny paper, affixed with a bright bow and then placed on a pedestal.  Given the sumptuous demonstration, it’s not the most substantive endeavor, but it is easily appreciated for its frivolous charms.  Even the title has been stylized with a period at the end — because it’s a period piece –according to director Autumn de Wilde.

This is indeed an adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel.  The esteemed author is celebrated for literary works that include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  However, Emma is not some stuffy scholarly chore.  This is a diversion about an impertinent girl who likes meddling in the affairs of other people.  Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a doe-eyed beauty with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.  She was rather memorable in  The Witch back in 2015.  Taylor-Joy does a convincing about-face here embodying a completely different kind of individual with believable conviction.  Emma is a bit spoiled and conceited with shallow concerns.  She fancies herself as a matchmaker but she really isn’t very good at it.  Furthermore, Emma has no desire to get married or even fall in love herself.  Ah but we the audience know better, don’t we?  Her gradual and changing realization is a developing theme of the story.

This is a gorgeous spectacle that is more readily enjoyed for the pleasures of presentation over content.  I do not mean that as a bad thing.  You don’t drink a Mimosa for its nutrients but because it’s a sparkling gem of a cocktail.   There’s a fizzy superficiality to this production that actually endears itself to the audience because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  The movie is playfully divided into sections by title cards that highlight the seasons.  The cast is sprightly and fun.  Besides the aforementioned Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, there’s also Johnny Flynn as her brother-in-law – George Knightley, Bill Nighy as her father Mr. Woodhouse and Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, the object of Emma’s matchmaking schemes.  This is a carefully choreographed portrait that exercises great care, not only in the placement of characters within any given frame but in the studied manifestation of opulent tableaus.  Filmmaker de Wilde is known for her portraiture photography and her talent shows.   The thinness of the plot is greatly augmented by visual detail.

Emma has been adapted a few times, most famously as Clueless in 1995.  Amy Heckerling’s reworking was a coming of age comedy classic about contemporary teens.  Any fan of that film (I am a proud one myself) will relish matching these personalities with their Clueless counterparts.  I realize this practice may sound a little reductive but it makes me value the source even more in fact.  Emma is perhaps the most stylish variation yet and a worthy addition to the cinematic canon of Jane Austin.

02-27-20

Brahms: The Boy II

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

brahms_the_boy_iiSTARS1.5Brahms: The Boy II is a fittingly awkward title for a story that did not demand a continuation.  The Boy was a modestly budgeted horror release in January of 2016.  It went on to gross $35 million in the U.S. and ultimately made $68 million worldwide.  It only cost $10 million so the fact that a sequel was made isn’t surprising.  The bewildering concept is that the previous entry ended on a note of finality.   A clever reveal made it seemingly impossible to create a compelling follow-up from that basis.  None of the actors from the film return incidentally.  My fears were indeed justified.  This movie is utterly uninteresting.

Killer toys usually involve a doll coming to life.  It’s practically a horror genre unto itself now.  They have a long and rich history.  I often point to the 1963 episode “Living Doll” from the TV series The Twilight Zone as a key inspiration.  It wasn’t the first example but it was a notable work.  The Child’s Play series is probably the most famous incarnation for audiences of today.  The Boy is part of that tradition and it was a serviceable drama that offered an amusing twist.  For this work to exist, however, screenwriter Stacey Menear had to retroactively introduce new elements.  These additions change what made the original film unique and reduce this new offering into something wholly pedestrian and dull.

Brahms: The Boy II is so thoroughly generic, mundane, banal, mediocre, uninteresting that to write a longer review would essentially be a creative exercise in using a thesaurus.  Sadly the narrative is a complete zero.   Nevertheless, it has some nice attributes.  I will admit the production design is lush.  The old mansion with its rooms of ornate furniture is nicely photographed and there is an underlying sense that something exciting could happen at any point.  Actor Christopher Convery as 8-year-old Jude conveys weirdness.  Sitting in a sweater-tie combo alongside his porcelain doll dressed in identical attire is a captivating image.  Now how’s that for a plot twist?  A one-and-a-half star review that ends on a positive note.

Downhill

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

downhillSTARS3.5I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Downhill is not a comedy.  It may appear to be one given the presence of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  It’s also from writing/directing duo—Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who previously made the sweet summer comedy The Way Way Back.  Even the misguided marketing campaign promised frivolity by highlighting the amusing bits with lighthearted music underscoring the trailer.  As a result, hoodwinked audiences saddled the movie with a “D” Cinemascore.  Critics haven’t been very kind either.  I will confirm that this is an uncomfortable experience.  Yes, that much is true, but it’s also the entire point.  It is, in fact, a compelling profile of a marriage in free fall.

The Stauntons are an American family on a ski vacation in the Alps.  The plot is set in motion when an explosive charge sets off an avalanche that comes dangerously close to burying Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Dad (Will Ferrell), and their two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) while having lunch on an elevated patio.  The shocking event is the impetus for an existential crisis.  The argument which ensues causes the married couple to reevaluate their relationship and how they feel about each other.

Downhill is a remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film I adored in 2014.  One might argue that the picture was perfect and didn’t require a redo.  Downhill doesn’t achieve the same heights.  I’ll concede that.   Nonetheless, Faxon and Rash have done more than simply translate the dialogue.  They’ve shifted the focus away from the husband, whose fraying masculinity was the focus in the original.  Downhill is about the wife.  She must come to terms with a marriage that isn’t in great shape to begin with.  The avalanche exposes a rift that’s already there.  That’s different. 

There’s a distinction in the way the two protagonists interact with other people at the resort as well.  Casting Americans as opposed to Swedes contrasts Scandinavian and American identities within a French setting.  There’s a complete personality shift to this family that gives the proceedings a singular feel.  When Billie goes down to complain to the mountain safety patrolman (Kristofer Hivju – who was also in Force Majeure) about the way the controlled avalanche was handed by the hotel, the narrative heightens a culture-clash between Americans and Europeans that was not present in the original production.  There’s also Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an oversexed concierge and a suave ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulo Berruti).   The contrast in their behavior with the Stauntons is a droll riff on American sensibilities.

However the #1 reason to see Downhill is a stellar performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as wife Billie Staunton.  It’s no wonder the actress currently has a record-breaking 8 Emmys, the most wins for any performer (she’s tied with Cloris Leachman).  It’s rare for the actress to do a theatrical feature so when she commits to a project like this, it’s something to cherish.  Her last was the delightful Enough Said in 2013.  Billie is a structured bundle of exasperation slowly coming apart at the seams.  To observe her is to witness the gradual shock of a woman that has been betrayed.  Downhill is indeed messy and awkward and hard to watch.  That’s part of the experience.  I get why audiences have savaged this movie.  If viewed through a lens of needing laughs, it will come up short.  This is no more a comedy than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Noah Baumbach’s more recent Marriage Story.  There are some funny bits to lighten the mood.  There is a certain humor in Pete’s character flaws or Billie’s irritation, but at heart, this is a portrait of pain.  It feels honest and genuine and that’s uncommon.  The achievement is something to champion.

02-18-20

Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on February 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sonic_the_hedgehog_ver6STARS3.5Surprise!  Sonic the Hedgehog is a hit.  I must say it’s a happy ending for a production that was the focus of some seriously negative online buzz last year.  The trailer dropped in April 2019.  Admittedly the main character looked ugly.  Sonic appeared as a rat-like entity with human teeth.  He was more than just a bit unsettling.  The backlash was so severe it led animators to redesign his look which delayed the release until Feb 14.   In this case, the decision to heed the public outcry was — in retrospect — smart.  The $58 million debut far exceeded expectations.  At $75 million and counting it’s currently the 2nd biggest hit of 2020 (after Bad Boys for Life).  Not sure what this will mean when movie trailers undoubtedly earn unfavorable reactions in the future.  However, in this case, the filmmaker’s decision to react to feedback was handsomely rewarded.

No one could have been less interested in this feature than me.  First off, I don’t care for films based on video games.  I’d be hard-pressed to name one I genuinely loved.  Mortal Kombat (1995) has been my go-to answer when asked to name my favorite and I’ll admit there’s a little nostalgia mixed in my enjoyment of it.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu came out in May of 2019.  It starred a “pocket monster.”  I tolerated it, but I didn’t recommend it to anyone outside of die-hard fans.  Sonic is yet another creature.  This one is an anthropomorphic hedgehog that first appeared in a 1991 game for the Sega Genesis.  It wasn’t part of my childhood so I had no interest in the character which makes what I’m about to say even more astonishing.  Sonic the Hedgehog is the best video game movie ever made.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve read my intro.  The competition isn’t even that fierce but hear me out.  I am not damning with faint praise.  This is indeed an enjoyable movie.  The saga concerns a hedgehog from another dimension.  He’s a blue computer-animated creation voiced by Ben Schwartz (TV’s Parks and Recreation) but he interacts with human people.  While using magical rings like portals to travel to other planets, he ends up in Green Hills, Montana.  There he meets a man named Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter).  Tom is the local sheriff who wants to help Sonic find his missing rings so he can return home.  The two form a friendship, not unlike a boy named Elliott and another extra-terrestrial from a 1982 science fiction classic.

The adventure heralds the welcome return of Jim Carrey in his finest performance in a decade.  The Department of Defense suspects something dangerous is going on after a widespread power outage.  They enlist the aid of Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a scientific genius sporting a bushy handlebar-mustache that would make any member of a barbershop quartet jealous.  I cannot downplay how much I enjoyed his antics.  His presence is truly a return to form.  I’m talking zany bonkers Jim Carrey in 1994 when he made Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all in the same year.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this role might be tiresome, but in his capable hands, the wacky physical comedy is hilarious.  The high point is when Robotnik does his dance of anarchy to “Where Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family.  His facial expressions and vocal delivery are amusing whenever he’s on screen.  He’s supported by a sidekick named Agent Stone portrayed by actor Lee Majdoub and he’s a calming counterpoint to Carrey’s wild shenanigans.

Sonic the Hedgehog may ostensibly be an adaptation of a video game.  The chronicle is merely about a character that gets into lots of mischief while trying to evade his captors but there’s just enough oddity and edge to delight adults too.  Jim Carrey is indeed the MVP but a charismatic cast featuring James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, Natasha Rothwell and Adam Pally all contribute.  The entire production is blessed with memorable and likable personalities.  At its center is Sonic and Tom, a duo whose evolving dynamic develops from casual acquaintances into close friends.  Thanks to them, this ends up being a sweet, warm, clever, and funny story about the importance of friendship.  This may be a broad, accessible family-friendly film for the pre-teen set.  Yet the narrative delves deeper to extract a depth of heart and feeling.  I wasn’t expecting that in a video game movie.

02-13-20

Birds of Prey

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Superhero with tags on February 13, 2020 by Mark Hobin

birds_of_prey_ver6

 

STARS1
“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  That’s what Annie Oakley confidently sang to marksman Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  She was boasting about her abilities as a sharpshooter and she wasn’t wrong.  Birds of Prey is about a decidedly different kind of feminist icon — Harley Quinn.  Some would even call her a villain.  There’s an ideology that subscribes to the idea that women can be just as — if not more than — coarse, vulgar and harmful as the men.  This is the approach where the very exhibition of destruction itself is an idea more cherished than drama, plot or logic.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a complete assault on the senses.  Even the unwieldy title is an irritant.  Warner Brothers also realized this later, because they have now retitled it as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as a course corrective.  At $33.0M, the movie had the worst opening since the DC Extended universe began in 2013.  One day the marketing campaign will be studied as a course entitled “What Not To Do”.  But let’s talk about the actual movie.  It doesn’t help that the plot is an incomprehensible headache to follow.  An animated intro — the only lucid thing in the whole production — informs us that the Joker and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) were once lovers.  He has broken up with her and now she is no longer afforded his protection.  She is now pursued by numerous enemies.  The main baddie is an evil gangster named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who owns a dance club.  He’s too much of a buffoon to be threatening.  Meanwhile, a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) has stolen and swallowed a precious diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) one of Roman Sionis’ henchmen.  So Harley offers to retrieve it for Roman. In exchange, he will spare her life.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have a reputation as artistic cinema but it’s Citizen Kane compared to this bewildering collection of gibberish.  At least Suicide Squad had Margot Robbie’s appearance which rose above the chaotic assemblage of actors.  As part of an ensemble, Harley Quinn was the charismatic standout, but here as the main focus of a narrative, you realize just how shallow and empty she truly is.  The once certified psychiatrist is a brightly colored confection not motivated by anything.  She merely responds to whatever is happening around her.  For most of the saga, her raison d’etre is to simply not die.  As one brutal spectacle piles on top of another, I grew numb.

Margo Robbie isn’t a character she’s an affectation.  An entity entirely composed of mannerisms and attitude.  She’s Baby-Spice blasting glitter bombs, occasionally breaking the fourth wall by winking and talking to the audience under the guidance of director Cathy Yan.  This is the filmmaker’s second feature after the indie comedy-drama Dead Pigs.  Star Robbie is a two-time Oscar nominee.  She is unquestionably a talent but here she is being instructed to behave in a way that truly tests the patience of the audience.  Harley Quinn’s cutesy chirp of a New York accent seems cobbled from Madonna’s performance as Nikki Finn in Who’s that Girl (1987).  Even their names sound similar.  Harley also narrates the film in a scattered singsongy voiceover that explains what’s happening on screen.  Obviously required because no sane person could possibly divine a point to this nonsense.

There is no story — just a series of raucous setpieces to which Harley Quinn must react.  Fight scenes are accompanied by a rock soundtrack cranked at full volume to distract from the lack of rationality.  “I Hate Myself for Loving You”, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Barracuda” all play at various points in the background.   The aural soundscape blends together.  One scene bears little relationship to the one before it.  Indeed the tale is conveniently told in a nonlinear fashion.  The decision feels more like a desperate struggle to obfuscate the lack of structure rather than a purposeful choice of style.

Birds of Prey is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics’ infamous supervillain “girl gang”.  They’re opposed by Roman and right-hand man Victor who cut their victims’ faces off while they’re still alive.  They gun down a family with children in a gory display too.  For most of the movie’s runtime, it concerns one Harley Quinn but three other women emerge who have been mistreated by men: a vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer dubbed Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).  The screenplay disingenuously attempts — in the end — to reinterpret all this mindless cursing, and mayhem into a pseudo-feminist anthem of banding together against their male oppressors.  Yet the women are undeveloped and conventional as characters.  Their one-dimensional personas feel like a giant step backward for female empowerment.  Ultimately the disjointed narrative makes absolutely no sense.  Birds of Prey — utterly lacking in wit, cleverness or coherence — is a featherbrained mess.

02-06-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts with tags on February 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Documentary

This victor in this category has always favored trends.  At one time it was the Holocaust.  Now the direction has been portraits about Muslim women.  I’ve reviewed and ranked these from my “want to win”  to my least preferred.  Personally, I don’t have strong feelings that one should triumph over the other.  I respect them all equally.  Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) has the best title so I predict that will prevail.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Walk Run Cha-Cha
USA/20MINS/2019
Director: Laura Nix
cha-cha
Paul and Millie are in love. They met as teenagers in Vietnam but the war separated them.  Years later they are reunited in California.  The doc shorts category tends to favor heavy subjects with a strong message.  This piece stands out because it’s the only one that’s blessedly upbeat and lighthearted.  It’s simply about love.  That is why it’s my personal choice.

 

In the Absence
US/SOUTH KOREA/29MINS/2018
Director: Yi Seung-Jun
Lavery-IntheAbsence-SewolFerryVid
Disaster footage from overhead shows a passenger ferry sinking off the coast of South Korea in 2014.  300 people — most of them schoolchildren on a field trip — lost their lives.  The official state response is a jaw-dropping document of ineptitude.  If the way this unfolds doesn’t make you angry, please check your pulse.  Watching the victims’ families and survivors suffer the aftermath is heartbreaking.

 

St. Louis Superman
USA/28MINS/2019
Directors: Sami Khan, Smriti Mundhra
superman
Bruce Franks Jr. is a Ferguson activist and a battle rapper who served for two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives.  He is a political powerhouse the likes of which you have never seen.  He fights for a bill critical for his community while contending with overwhelming personal trauma.  This emotional account is unquestionably an admirable portrait of overcoming adversity but the coda at the end feels a bit like a rug pull.  It ends on a depressing note.  I wish the directors had focused more on the positives because there are so many to this man.  P.S. The rap battle should be subtitled.  Highlighting the poetry of his words would have emphasized why he won.  I think he won.  It’s not clear.

 

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
UK/US/Afghanistan/40MINS/2018
Director: Carol Dysinger
Skateboard
An inspirational tale about the status of Islamic women in Afghanistan.  Over the past decade, this theme has frequently won the award (Period. End of Sentence., A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Saving Face).  Noble and important but also unfocused.  The title implies this chronicle will be about young Afghan girls who skateboard but in fact, this concerns a variety of topics including a basic desire to just read and write.  The sports aspect is, unfortunately, a very small part.   At 40 minutes it’s the longest of all the 15 nominees in the entire shorts program.  It feels like it.

 

Life Overtakes Me
USA/37MINS/2019
Director: John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
netflix-life-overtakes-me-review-3
Many refugee children and their families have fled to Sweden from traumatic experiences in their home countries.  Some still face deportation.  Over 400 have become afflicted with something called Resignation Syndrome.  This dissociative disorder appears to be a coma-like state.  The experience resembles sleep.  The documentary highlights a fascinating affliction but it begs so many more questions than it answers.  Is this real?  Why is this specifically happening to the refugees in this country?  Have the parents asked their children to “fake it” to improve their prospects?  Directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson don’t press for explanations.  That’s frustrating.

 

02-03-20